Rabu, 01 September 2010

Everybody Loves the Office!

The Workplace Is Popular in Entertainment Media
by Alan Krauss, Porfolio.com

Content provided by Portfolio.com: The workplace, once a mere backdrop for popular entertainment, has taken center stage.

The popular comedy "The Office" begins its fourth season on NBC on September 27, while a new ABC series, "Carpoolers," will premiere on October 2. But the two TV shows are just the tip of the iceberg. Books, movies, Web series, comics -- all offer windows into the mundane realities, management crises, and emotional interplay of characters busy earning their daily bread.

Office romances, comedies, and dramas have been a staple of popular entertainment for decades, going back to cultural touchstones like "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." More recently, a slew of novels ("The Office of Desire," "Then We Came to the End" by Joshua Ferris, "Company" by Max Barry, and many more), movies ("The Devil Wears Prada"), and TV shows ("The Apprentice," "The West Wing") have revolved around tyrannical or incompetent bosses, annoying or amusing co-workers, and the business of work.

Meanwhile, "The No A**hole Rule," "Made to Stick," and a shelf's worth of other nonfiction business books that aim to show readers how to be more effective and thus happier at work (and away from the office as well) are also riding high on bestseller lists.

And of course at 19 years and counting, Scott Adams's Dilbert brand is going strong in print, online, and in the merchandising arena.

A Reflection of Life?

There are several reasons for the enduring appeal of office-related entertainment, according to critics and other culture watchers. For one thing, many people spend more time at work these days than they do with their families.

And in the 1950s and '60s, women started to enter the workforce in greater numbers, a shift that gave new potential to the office as a setting, says Jeff Kloske, publisher of Riverhead Books, which released Martha Moody's novel "The Office of Desire" last month. "Now, the thing is that people's entire lives are defined by their office relationships," he says. "That's why the office as setting for all these different forms of entertainment is so successful."


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But although a growing proportion of Americans have white-collar jobs, that doesn't mean they feel a greater sense of empowerment when they're at their desks than an assembly-line worker does.

"There's a certain amount of cynicism," says David Halle, a sociology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. "There are a lot of mergers, companies being bought and sold. People are sitting in their offices, and for the vast majority, there's not much they can do about it."

Sitcoms about office life, he says, are an opportunity for viewers to have a little fun at the expense of what can be the unfunny reality of their lives. "The situation in offices is kind of grim a lot of times. These kinds of shows are opportunities to present a satirical, fun look at what is often not a fun situation," he says.

The Family Feeling Is Strong

At the same time, tales of office life let people see that they are not alone with their problems. "It makes people realize that their complaints are universal," says David Thorburn, a professor of literature and comparative media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Lately, there has been a subtle shift in the setup: Instead of using the workplace as simply a backdrop, it is now the main point of the story.

Books, movies, and TV are still focused on what the experts refer to as workplace families, where outsiders (and viewers) can find companionship and fulfillment -- the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" model. But a growing number of shows, like "The Office" and the Internet series "Floaters" (www.phoebeworks.com), go beyond the family dynamic, with its sibling rivalries and fatherly authority figures, to actually dramatize the work that employees do.

"We never even saw Ward Cleaver at work," says Michael Abernethy, a columnist for PopMatters.com, a cultural news web site. "Now we have characters whom we never see at home."

A Cultural Shift at Work

Abernethy says a broad shift in cultural priorities may account for the change. "Work used to be the thing we did so we could have a nice home life," he said. Now, "if we have a family and time with the spouse and kids, it's a bonus."

The Internet and the always-on connectivity of cell phones and email are also important factors, says Fred Turner, an assistant professor of communication at Stanford University. "Everywhere is the office now," he says.

But a coherent story requires boundaries. "By limiting the scene to an office," he adds, "a TV show or book can create a limited narrative space in which to explore the diffusion of work into everyday life and the entangling of work and interpersonal relations."

Lofty analyses of cultural trends aside, though, the fundamental reason for the appeal of the latest spate of office-related books and shows is no different than in decades past: They are entertaining.

Everyone can relate to being stuck with a boss who is bumbling, insensitive, or outright evil, Abernethy says. And everyone has had co-workers who were shy or gossipy, loud or tactless. "Invariably," he says, "the setup for these office-related works -- whether they be blogs, films, series, or books -- contains an everyman or -woman, some average person trying to survive the insanity. A person we can point to and say, 'That's me!'"

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